Connecticut legislative leaders introduced a sweeping new marijuana legalization bill late on Saturday, a day after announcing they’d reached a deal with the governor. A vote on the 297-page measure is expected within days, ahead of a mid-week legislative deadline.
The new proposal includes significant concessions to social equity advocates, who’ve criticized the legalization plan introduced by Gov. Ned Lamont (D) earlier this year as well as details of floated proposals that emerged during the negotiations. The changes are likely to curry favor among at least some progressive Democrats in the legislature, who previously signaled they might oppose the policy change.
House Majority Leader Jason Rojas (D) and Speaker Matt Ritter (D) have been negotiating with Lamont’s office for weeks on the compromise bill. They finally said on Friday morning that they had secured a “pencils down” agreement, and on Saturday promised the bill’s language would be public by the end of the day. It posted to the state’s legislative website late in the evening as Senate Bill 1118, sponsored by Ritter and Senate President Martin Looney (D).
Lawmakers are working against the clock to pass the reform by the end-of-session deadline on June 9, with other significant pieces of legislation—most notably the state budget—still in need of approval by then. Leaders said at a press briefing Saturday they’re hoping to address those matters early in the week and take up the cannabis bill on the Senate floor before Wednesday to avoid giving opponents the opportunity to run out the clock.
“I understand that Republicans are opposed to the bill,” Rojas said. “I’m hoping that they won’t approach it in the way they’ve approached some other bills that they’re really opposed to and feel the need to filibuster something.”
“You could look at maybe Tuesday,” added Ritter when asked about the bill’s timeline. “Obviously Wednesday gets pretty risky, as the majority leader noted, because we’re out at midnight, but there are options. So we’ll have to work through it, and we will work through it.”
Watch House leaders discuss the marijuana legalization bill at around 6:15 and 11:40 into the video below:
The new bill incorporates elements of Lamont’s SB 888 as well as HB 6377, introduced by Rep. Robyn Porter (D). Its language was initially expected to be incorporated as a change to Lamont’s bill, which has already moved through two committees, but the compromise was instead introduced as standalone legislation with an emergency certification, allowing it to bypass typical committee votes so late in the legislative session.
Broadly speaking, the legislation would legalize personal possession and use of cannabis by adults 21 and older and eventually launch a regulated commercial cannabis market in Connecticut, licensing growers, retailers, manufacturers and delivery services. The Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) would be in charge of licensing and regulating cannabis businesses. Rojas said he expects recreational sales would start in May 2022.
Half of all business licenses would need to be issued to social equity applicants, defined as people who have lived in geographic areas disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs and who make no more than three times the state’s median income. Those applicants could also qualify for technical assistance, workforce training and funding to cover startup costs. Much of the revenue from the new commercial market would be reinvested back into communities hit hardest by the drug war.
For those who don’t want to buy cannabis commercially, home cultivation would also be allowed under the bill—first for medical patients, then eventually for all adults 21 and older.
The legislative changes have focused on “strengthening our attempts to ensure that this new marketplace is really open to as broad a spectrum of individuals who want to enter that marketplace,” Rojas said on Friday, [rather] than “just having large corporate or over-capitalized interests dominating the market.”
Here are some of the key provisions of the new cannabis compromise legislation:
- Legalization of cannabis possession and use would happen almost immediately. As of July 1 of this year, adults 21 and older could possess 1.5 ounces of cannabis or an equivalent amount of cannabis concentrates, and they could keep up to five ounces in their private residence or a vehicle’s trunk or locked glove box.
- Homegrow would be allowed. Medical marijuana patients 18 and older could cultivate up to three mature plants and three immature plants beginning October 1, 2021, while adults 21 and older would have to wait until July 1, 2023. (Until then, first offenses for low-level home cultivation would be decriminalized.) No more than 12 plants per household would be allowed.
- Adults 21 and older could gift legal possession amounts of marijuana to other adults.
- Criminal convictions for possession of less than four ounces of cannabis would be automatically expunged beginning in 2023. Expungement would apply to possession convictions from January 1, 2000 through September 15, 2015.
- Beginning July 1, 2022, individuals could petition to have other cannabis convictions erased, such as for possession of marijuana paraphernalia or the sale of small amounts of cannabis.
- The smell of cannabis alone would no longer be a legal basis for law enforcement to stop and search individuals, nor would suspected possession of up to five ounces of marijuana.
- Absent federal restrictions, employers would not be able to take adverse actions against workers merely for testing positive for cannabis metabolites.
- Rental tenants, students at institutions of higher learning, and professionals in licensed occupations would be protected from certain types of discrimination around legal cannabis use. People who test positive for cannabis metabolites, which suggest past use, could not be denied organ transplants or other medical care, educational opportunities or have action taken against them by the Department of Children and Families without another evidence-based reason for the action.
- Cannabis-related advertising could not target people under 21, and businesses that allow minors on their premises would be penalized. Licensees who sell to minors would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,000 fine. People in charge of households or private properties who allow minors to possess cannabis there would also face a Class A misdemeanor.
- Adults 18 to 20 years old who are caught with small amounts cannabis would be subject to a $50 civil fine, although subsequent violations could carry a $150 fine and mandatory community service. All possession offenses would require individuals to sign a statement acknowledging the health risks of cannabis to young people.
- Minors under 18 could not be arrested for cannabis possession. A first offense would carry a written warning and possible referral to youth services, while a third or subsequent offense, or possession of more than five ounces of marijuana, would send the individual to juvenile court.
- Local governments could prohibit cannabis businesses or ban cannabis delivery within their jurisdictions. Municipalities could also set reasonable limits on the number of licensed businesses, their locations, operating hours and signage.
- Until June 30, 2024, the number of licensed cannabis retailers could not exceed one per 25,000 residents. After that, state regulators will set a new maximum.
- Cannabis products would be capped at 30 percent THC by weight for cannabis flower and all other products except pre-filled vape cartridges at 60 percent THC, though those limits could be further adjusted by regulators. Retailers would also need to provide access to low-THC and high-CBD products. Products designed to appeal to children would be forbidden.
- The state’s general sales tax of 6.35 percent would apply to cannabis, and an additional excise tax based on THC content would be imposed. The bill also authorizes a 3 percent municipal tax, which must be used for community reinvestment.
- Until June 30, 2023, all excise tax would flow to the state’s general fund. For three years after that, 60 percent of the tax revenue will go to a new Social Equity and Innovation Fund. That amount would increase to 65 percent in 2026 and 75 percent in 2028. Other revenue would go to the state’s general fund as well as prevention and recovery services around drug use disorders.
- Existing medical marijuana dispensaries could become “hybrid retailers” to also serve adult-use consumers. Regulators would begin accepting applications for hybrid permits in September 2021, and applicants would need to submit a conversion plan and pay a $1 million fee. That fee could be cut in half if they create a so-called equity joint venture, which would need to be majority owned by a social equity applicant. Medical marijuana growers could also begin cultivating adult-use cannabis in the second half this year, though they would need to pay a fee of up to $3 million.
- Licensing fees for social equity applicants would be 50 percent of open licensing fees. Applicants would need to pay a small fee to enter a lottery, then a larger fee if they’re granted a license. Social equity licensees would also receive a 50 percent discount on license fees for the first three years of renewals.
- The state would be allowed to enter into cannabis-related agreements with tribal governments, such as the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and the Mohegan Tribe of Indians.
A detailed summary of the measure was published by the advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) on Sunday afternoon.
Contrary to some earlier reports, the bill does not contain provisions that would require social equity applicants to pay a $3 million licensing fee and partner with larger, existing medical marijuana companies.
Legalization advocates broadly welcomed the new proposal.
“We’re excited by the recently revised legalization bill that was released yesterday,” DeVaughn Ward, a Connecticut attorney and senior legislative counsel for MPP, told Marijuana Moment on Sunday. “Although we believe some of the social equity licensing could be better tailored, this bill is a vast improvement over where we started in January and heads and tails better than the status quo.”
“With the addition of home grow for adults by 2023, the dedication of 50 percent of the licenses, and upwards of 60 percent of the excise tax revenue being put towards equity efforts,” Ward continued, “the bill looks poised to gain passage in both chambers.”
Jason Ortiz, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and a member of a legalization working group assembled by Lamont that issued recommendations on social equity late last year, said the changes are likely to help win some progressive votes although further reforms may be necessary.
“This bill is a huge step forward and has some truly nation-leading progressive policies. The only thing this bill is missing is the inclusion of our formerly incarcerated into the economic opportunities we’re giving millionaires,” he said. “If we can get agreement on including them in the equity qualifier, I think the progressives will be able to get on board. Without it it’s 50/50.”
The Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition, which advocates for regulations designed to build an equitable cannabis industry, described the bill as a good faith effort at incorporating inclusive policies but said the bill’s licensing provisions would still allow large businesses to begin operation before equity-owned companies.
“We urge Connecticut legislators to listen to people who have been directly harmed by the drug war arrests, incarceration, and collateral consequences and, crucially, to develop a sequence that puts them first,” the group told Marijuana Moment in an email. “Lessons from other states demonstrate that the timing of when a program becomes available for the people most harmed by the drug war is a critical factor in whether such a program achieves its goals. The funding, technical assistance, and other laudable elements in SB 1118 should be made available as early as possible and before the market commences.”
House leaders said they presented draft language of the bill to chamber colleagues and felt it was well received.
“We were able to make a couple of more adjustments that reflect, I think, the preferences of as many people in our caucus as possible to get us to the votes that we need to pass it,” Rojas said at Saturday’s briefing.
Prior to the compromise bill, progressive Democrats had signaled that they feel legislative leaders and the governor were moving too quickly and sidestepping important social equity considerations. Rep. Anne Hughes (D), cochair of the Progressive Caucus, told Marijuana Moment last week that “we want to do it right”—and that may mean tackling the reform in a special session, an option opposed by leadership and the governor.
On Saturday, Ritter downplayed the likelihood of calling for lawmakers to return to a special legislative session to tackle the, although he acknowledged it was a possibility. “We’d obviously keep that open if need be,” he said.
“We wouldn’t be the only state that needed to do it in a special session given the complexity of this policy issue,” added Rojas. “New Mexico went the same route. It worked hard during the regular session, felt the need to just pause to make sure they got it right and did a special session. But I think, you know, again, my mind is not there right now.”
Meanwhile, the governor said recently that he and legislative leaders are having “good, strong negotiations,” and there’s “broad agreement” on policies concerning public health and safety. There’s “growing agreement” with respect to using marijuana tax revenue to reinvest in communities disproportionately harmed by prohibition.
If a legalization measure isn’t enacted this year, Lamont said last month that the issue could ultimately go before voters.
“Marijuana is sort of interesting to me. When it goes to a vote of the people through some sort of a referendum, it passes overwhelmingly. When it goes through a legislature and a lot of telephone calls are made, it’s slim or doesn’t pass,” the governor said. “We’re trying to do it through the legislature. Folks are elected to make a decision, and we’ll see where it goes. If it doesn’t, we’ll probably end up in a referendum.”
He last year that if the legislature isn’t able to pass a legalization bill, he will move to put a question on the state’s 2022 ballot that would leave the matter to voters.
According to recent polling, if legalization did go before voters, it would pass.
Sixty-four percent of residents in the state favor legalizing cannabis for adult use, according to a survey from Sacred Heart University that was released last week.
The competing legalization measure from Rep. Robyn Porter (D), which is favored by many legalization advocates for its focus on social equity, was approved in the Labor and Public Employees Committee in March.
Lamont, who convened an informal work group in recent months to make recommendations on the policy change, initially described his legalization plan as a “comprehensive framework for the cultivation, manufacture, sale, possession, use, and taxation of cannabis that prioritizes public health, public safety, and social justice.”
But while advocates have strongly criticized the governor’s plan as inadequate when it comes to equity provisions, Ritter said in March that “optimism abounds” as lawmakers work to merge proposals into a final legalization bill.
Rojas also said that “in principle, equity is important to both the administration and the legislature, and we’re going to work through those details.”
To that end, the majority leader said that working groups have been formed in the Democratic caucuses of the legislature to go through the governor’s proposal and the committee-approved reform bill.
In February, a Lamont administration official stressed during a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee that Lamont’s proposal it is “not a final bill,” and they want activists “at the table” to further inform the legislation.
The legislature has considered legalization proposals on several occasions in recent years, including a bill that Democrats introduced last year on the governor’s behalf. Those bills stalled, however.
Lamont reiterated his support for legalizing marijuana during his annual State of the State address in January, stating that he would be working with the legislature to advance the reform this session.
The governor has compared the need for regional coordination on marijuana policy to the coronavirus response, stating that officials have “got to think regionally when it comes to how we deal with the pandemic—and I think we have to think regionally when it comes to marijuana, as well.”
He also said that legalization in Connecticut could potentially reduce the spread of COVID-19 by limiting out-of-state trips to purchase legal cannabis in neighboring states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey.
Kyle Jaeger contributed reporting.